Mary Call Collins, who died Sunday at the age of 98 at her ancestral home in Tallahassee, was Florida's first lady in an even larger sense than having been the wife, confidante, conscience and counselor of an outstanding governor. When the struggling young lawyer LeRoy Collins married Mary Call Darby in 1932, she brought no wealth to the marriage beyond an old frame house that contained a trunk brim-full of Confederate currency. But she came with a historic legacy that influenced his rise to greatness.
She was the great-granddaughter of Richard Keith Call, a military protege of Andrew Jackson, who served twice as territorial governor of Florida. Call built the great antebellum mansion, The Grove, that the couple went deeply into debt to purchase from another branch of her family in 1941.
Although he owned slaves, Call was a strong unionist. Facing down a delegation of taunting secessionists in January 1861, Call declared from the steps of his mansion, "You have opened the gates of hell, from which shall flow the curses of the damned which shall sink you to perdition!"
LeRoy Collins, who was elected governor in 1954, recounted that story at every opportunity. Like other whites of their time and place, the first couple were accustomed to racial segregation as a matter of faith, and Collins promised to do what he could to perpetuate "our custom and law." But unlike most others, they found it increasingly difficult to reconcile segregation with their consciences and their religion.
In 1957, amid a rancorous Tallahassee bus boycott, Collins shocked many of his fellows by telling them in so many words that they should not object to sharing seats with blacks and by declaring that, like it or not, U.S. Supreme Court orders were to be obeyed. He successfully vetoed school-closing legislation and fought off a raft of other last-resort segregation bills. In 1960, his last year in office, Collins declared on statewide television that it was unfair, un-American and un-Christian for department store owners to discriminate against blacks at their lunch counters. In 1964, having accepted President Lyndon Johnson's invitation to head the newly formed Community Relations Service, he said in a speech that civil rights had become "the most important moral issue of our time." Such statements inspired a generation of racially progressive leaders.
His evolving positions were hugely unpopular with most of the people that LeRoy and Mary Call Collins had counted as friends in Tallahassee. Their life there became difficult if not lonely. Collins came home one day to find his wife weeping because a close friend had declared that she could never vote for him again. Throughout, however, she steadfastly supported and encouraged him. Their closest friend, former state Sen. Ed H. Price Jr., of Bradenton, believes that it was Mary Call who "gave him the strength to do what he had to do." Acknowledging the disfavor of their peers, she had assured Price that "I support my husband all the way and I'm not going to let it bother me."
"For someone as tiny as she was," observed daughter Darby Collins, "she had the strength and determination of Hercules."
There was but one occasion on which it became too much. At Johnson's orders, Collins had negotiated a peaceful resolution to Dr. Martin Luther King's confrontation with Alabama Gov. George Wallace during the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965. A photograph of Collins talking with King made it appear, incorrectly, that he was marching in support of the demonstrators. A few hours after the picture appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat, Collins arrived at the capital's airport and called his wife for a ride. Mary Call was babysitting their grandchildren and could not leave. "How am I going to get home?" he asked. "Well," she replied, "you might march."
Although Collins enjoyed telling that story too, Selma led to the saddest chapter of their lives: his defeat for the U.S. Senate in 1968. Even Leon County, their home, turned against him, and it was another year before they felt able to return.
But as both had always intended, they died — he in 1991 and she in 2009 — at the great mansion they had rescued from disrepair. It became state property in 1985, to become a museum after her death. Florida had long since recognized their unique, invaluable contributions to its progress.
Martin Dyckman, a retired Times associate editor, is author of Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins, published by the University Press of Florida.